Mentorship is the warm and generative space between being a peer and a critical friend. While peers can hang on the weekend and critical friends focus on the work, mentors hold a judgment-free space for their mentees to develop both personally and professionally.
Lasting a year in many districts, mentorship is a long and transformative journey in which the mentor and mentee will get to know each other beyond the scope of planning habits and lunchtime rituals. You were chosen by your administration to become a mentor not just because you have strong instructional skills, but also because you can build relationships based on compassion and empathy.
It’s much easier for mentors to facilitate a holistic and transformative experience when their mentorship is grounded in key components of adult learning.
A Holding Environment
A holistic approach to mentoring isn’t just about appreciating the whole teacher, it’s about making space for you to be your whole authentic self as well. As mentors, we intentionally establish and grow trust so that our mentees can speak their truth, vent, and celebrate. In adult learning, this is known as a holding environment—a growth-oriented setting of scaffolds and challenges in which the need for change is not imminent.
Ways to start building trust include scheduling consistent meetings, maintaining confidentiality, establishing the desired mode(s) of communication, discussing feedback styles, and previewing the types of mentoring activities that the mentor and mentee can do together. Trust will start to develop when the mentee observes the mentor respecting these agreements.
Creating a holding environment requires some envisioning. As a mentor, envision the kind of relationship you would like to have with your mentee. What would you want them to say about you by the end of the year? What is your vision for their success?
As you learn more about one another, you’ll be able to cocreate a vision with this teacher. This will frame your interactions positively and help maintain your optimism, which in turn will help your mentee to look on the bright side even when facing the growing pains of their first year. Be prepared to share your own pedagogical vision and that of your department.
Part of creating a holding environment is inviting your mentee to see that personal topics are not swept under the rug in the name of professionalism. As you mentor, inquiry, curiosity, and respecting boundaries are key. Model openness by sharing your own experiences. You can ask what inspired them to become a teacher and which experiences compelled them to do so. Adult learning often happens through making sense and reflecting on past experiences.
Although you aren’t responsible for their mental health, checking in on your mentee is crucial to the work of building trust. Checking in on each other is especially pertinent now. Adults and children have endured significant traumas during the pandemic, which continue to affect us all in a variety of ways.
The holding environment that you create will be thoughtfully tailored to your mentee and their needs, and it’s helpful to extend the holding environment beyond your regular meetings. You can introduce your mentee to your school crew, welcome them to a professional learning community, and consider hosting an informal learning session with other mentors and mentees, such as a lunch-and-learn, in which you all learn something together.
The Role of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development
Of course, your primary function as a mentor is ensuring that your mentee is growing professionally in becoming an effective teacher who engages students and leads them to success. In order for this growth to take place, you will at times need to challenge your mentee and coax them out of their comfort zone. Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD) explains that the ZPD consists of the skills that are within a person’s reach and in which mastery can be achieved through intentional guidance and scaffolding.
When determining the ZPD of our students, we often start with factors like age. Because adults develop and learn in a multitude of ways independent of age, you can start estimating your mentee’s ZPD through classroom visits and conversations.
This will require some practice, but it will allow your mentee to implement strategies you discuss and help them feel challenged but not stressed. Imagine how overwhelming it would be if you, a master teacher, were to share all of your pedagogical practices and skills with a brand-new educator in just a few months!
The ZPD can also be applied to navigating professional relationships such as taking on duties on a grade team. A sign you’ve recognized their ZPD is your mentee readily trying your suggestions and making changes based on your feedback. Once there, you can invite them to your classroom, model practices, provide feedback, and explore what to learn together next. Don’t hesitate to make this a joint learning experience and invite them to give you feedback as well.
No matter how many times you have taken the role of a mentor, asking for feedback on mentoring is an important part of adult learning. Adults need to participate in defining their learning journey. When you ask for feedback, you are inviting your mentees to cocreate a meaningful experience for both of you.
Expect to be transformed by the end of the year. Although mentorship is a finite professional relationship, don’t be surprised if your mentee thinks of you as a mentor for a very long time thereafter. Don’t worry if you feel like you are far from perfect. We all are in so many different ways. What matters most is that your mentee feels seen and is shown consistently that they matter.
This post is dedicated to my mentees, who make me a better mentor, and to my mentor, Laura Saenz.